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Frequently Asked Questions

In addition to the following questions about IELS, more FAQs about international assessments are available at

IELS provides the United States an opportunity to better understand the skills and competencies of American children at the beginning of primary school, when they are 5 years old, and compare them to the skill profiles of 5-year-olds in other countries. Results from IELS provide policymakers, educators, and parents/guardians with important information about the experiences that influence children’s early learning as they begin school. This information can be used to improve children’s education and experiences in the first 5 years of life. These early years can set the stage for future success in and outside of school.

The focus of IELS is the child's early learning and skills. This information is collected via three components:

  • Play-based direct assessment: Children complete game-like activities on a tablet designed to measure their emergent literacy, emergent numeracy, self-regulation and empathy skills (emotional identification and emotional attribution);
  • Parents questionnaire: Parents provide an indirect assessment of children’s early cognitive, behavioral, and social emotional skills, family demographic information, information on the home learning environment, and children’s early childhood education and care (ECEC) history; and
  • Teacher questionnaire: Teachers provide an indirect assessment of the early cognitive, behavioral, and social emotional skills of each study child in their class.

For more details on each of these five components, visit:

IELS assesses the whole child, targeting those areas of early learning and development associated with later success in school and beyond. Children's emergent literacy, emergent numeracy, and self-regulation knowledge and skills were measured directly via a play-based assessment presented on a tablet during the 2018 Pilot Study. Find more details about the components included in the IELS child assessment and adult components here:

  • In July 2015, the OECD convened the Early Learning Group (ELG) consisting of member nations, including the United States, interested in working together to answer common questions and policy issues pertaining to young children's learning.
  • The ELG met quarterly in 2015 and 2016 to determine what areas of early learning to assess and to create a general framework for IELS.
  • In September 2016, an international consortium was contracted to develop the study measures and fine-tune the study design. To do this, the international consortium convened groups of experts from multiple nations to help develop the study instruments and protocols for IELS.
  • In November 2016, the new instruments were tested in cognitive laboratories in both Australia and Poland. The findings were reviewed by the ELG and international experts.
  • The resulting modifications and improvements were pilot tested in the United States in March 2017. Again, the results were reviewed by international experts and changes were made to the study instruments and protocols.
  • A multi-country field test was conducted in fall 2017 to evaluate IELS procedures, protocols, and instruments. The results of the field test were examined by the OECD, the international consortium, international experts, and the ELG, leading to modifications to the instruments and protocols.
  • The IELS 2018 Pilot Study protocols and instruments were administered in England, Estonia, and the United States in fall 2018. The results were released in March 2020.

England, Estonia, and the United States participated in the first cycle of IELS, which was a pilot test of the newly developed IELS measures and study protocols.

Approximately 3,000 students, from about 200 public and private schools across the United States, participated in the 2018 Pilot study during fall 2018. The field test in 2017 included approximately 30 public and private U.S. schools with a total of 475 children.

The U.S. Department of Education sampled about 200 public and private schools to represent the nation. Schools were chosen at random to ensure racial/ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, as well as representation from schools in rural, suburban, and urban areas. In each participating school, up to 19 five-year-old students were randomly selected to take part in the study. In very small schools, all 5-year-old students were sometimes asked to participate. Approximately 3,000 five-year-olds took part in the pilot study across the United States in fall 2018.

Participants help IELS to provide an accurate picture of what 5-year-olds in the U.S. know and can do. Participants help IELS to provide an accurate picture of what 5-year-olds in the U.S. know and can do. Parents and guardians complete a questionnaire to contribute vital information about their child’s early educational experiences and early development. The child’s teacher also completes a short questionnaire to provide a fuller picture of the child’s skills and experiences.

IELS is a play-based study conducted on tablets. Children were asked to point to pictures, listen to stories, and complete game-like tasks. They did not need to prepare in advance or to know how to read. The assessment was conducted during school hours in a room designated by the school, such as the school library.

Children completed the assessment working one-on-one with trained staff who had experience working with children. The study was untimed and split across two days to minimize time away from regular classroom activity. The study took about 30 minutes each day, and children were allowed to take breaks as necessary. Children enjoyed participating.

One parent or guardian of each student who participated in the study was asked to complete a brief survey. Parent participation in IELS was critically important for the study to be able to report on the relationship between children’s early learning experiences and their skills as they enter school.

  • The questionnaire asked demographic questions and questions about the child’s early learning experiences. It also asked the parent or guardian to report on their child’s social skills and participation in early childhood education and care (ECEC).
  • The questionnaire was available online, with a paper version available upon request. Spanish versions of the questionnaire were also available.
  • Parents/guardians could decide when and where to complete the questionnaire, within the timeframe of the study. They could exit the questionnaire at any point and return to it later.
  • Parents/guardians could skip any questions that they did not want to answer.

Teachers of students who participated in the study were asked to complete an online survey about their professional background and about the development of the sampled students. Paper-and-pencil versions of the surveys were available upon request. Teachers did not have to complete the survey in a single session.

No. Trained IELS staff from Westat administered the study on behalf of NCES and provided all required materials. Exceptions were made for students with IEP accommodations that require the assistance of school personnel (e.g., if a student works one-on-one with an aide).

All participation was voluntary. Children could skip any question they did not want to answer. Any child who did not wish to work with IELS staff did not have to do so. Children were able to take breaks whenever they wanted during the assessment.

Although IELS aimed to be as inclusive as possible, the assessment was offered only in English in the 2018 Pilot Study. Similarly, students with disabilities and English language learners were offered only a limited set of accommodations to participate in the pilot study. If these accommodations did not provide adequate support to enable their participation, the children were excused.

NCES along with Westat, a research organization, conducted the study in the United States beginning in October and ending in December 2018.

The IELS field test (a small-scale, trial run of the study) was conducted in every participating country in fall 2017. To ensure that the assessment wording and the concepts assessed are not regionally, culturally, or socially biased, the study materials were field-tested with a diverse sample of 5-year-olds from a variety of schools, locations, and backgrounds. Field-test participants provided essential feedback, improving the study and guaranteeing that IELS can provide an accurate picture of what U.S. 5-year-olds know and can do.

Individual children’s performance will not be shared with teachers, the school, or the district in any way. Results will not identify participating districts, schools, students, educators, or parents/guardians. Individual responses will be combined with those from other participants to produce summary statistics and reports.

The OECD released an international report ( along with a U.S. Country Note ( on March 12, 2020.

An international database will be released in early 2021. Please see the OECD IELS website for more information:

The information provided will be used only for statistical purposes and may not be disclosed, or used, in identifiable form for any other purpose except as required by law (20 U.S.C. §9573 and 6 U.S.C. §151). All field staff and other staff working on the study have signed an affidavit of non-disclosure where they swear to abide by this law.

The information provided by individual children and parents or guardians will not be shared with teachers, schools, or the district. Individuals and schools will not be identified in any reported data. IELS was not designed to produce results for individual children or individual schools. The results were combined to provide an overall description of the nation’s 5-year-olds.

IELS is currently scheduled to be conducted in 2023. Additional countries are considering participation. Results from the IELS 2018 Pilot Study will inform the further refinement of the IELS instruments.

For additional information, please call the IELS Project Officer at NCES, Mary Coleman, at 202-245-8382, or e-mail her at

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